New York City has all manner of secrets. Least of which, in Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians, is the magic. Brimming over the iconic landscape of Central Park, and binding together the oldest, richest houses on its borders, magic is both integral and hidden, a part and apart from the city. The old families that use it, though, are starting to crumble.
A great tournament to determine the head of the Unseen World has begun, pitting magicians against one another in epic feats of skill and dominance. However, this tournament isn’t what signifies the crumbling of the great families— every generation, after all, holds a Turning to determine the leader of their great society. Instead, it is the sudden stopping and starting of magic. It is the mysterious murders of girls with magic in their blood. It is the appearance of a stranger, Sydney of the House of Shadows, that has struck fear into the hearts of the Unseen World’s nobility.
Like Howard’s 2016 novel, Roses and Rot, An Unkindness of Magicians is filled with mystery and darkness, trauma and community. In place of a fairy tale plot, however, is a greater evil than even the fae could cook up: human beings clinging to power.
The magician that bests all the others in the Turning will lead the Unseen World. Some are heirs to the great houses, others are champions hired by them, and still others are newcomers, attempting to establish their own house and to prove their worth to the magical community. Sydney is the champion to one such newcomer, a young man with no magical lineage whatsoever named Laurent. Seeming to appear out of nowhere, Sydney decides from the get-go to fight for the underdog in the Turning: for someone not enmeshed in politics and old money, for someone (the only someone) that isn’t white, and for someone that might, with any luck, make some changes.
As the plot of Unkindness unfolds, though, it becomes obvious that while Sydney has made contingency plans for reforming the Unseen World, her goal is to upend it. At its heart a revenge thriller, the novel reveals the ugliness of magic right alongside the people fighting for their share of it. The great houses, full as they are of rich, white elites, cling to their power at every conceivable cost. Sydney and a handful of her supporters are acutely aware of that cost—Sydney may even be that cost—and they won’t stop until they’ve punished the people paying the bill.
An Unkindness of Magicians is a fun and fast-paced read, and is impossible to look away from. Howard revels in the grotesque and the beautiful, in her action scenes and in her quiet moments alike. In one scene, an illusion of changing seasons goes awry, with summer planting its roots into a living human, a full-twisting tree emerging from her body. In another, a man grinds finger bones into dust, mixes it into a cocktail of water and honey, and drinks it. With all its creepy imagery and thrilling stunts, there’s no way the novel’s Halloween release is a coincidence.
That seasonality is as much a compliment as it is a complaint, though. Despite being enmeshed in the novel’s action as I read it, I found that it didn’t have a lot of emotional staying power. Sydney is a compelling and kick-ass protagonist, but the trauma that is at the heart of her character is often sidelined in favor of that ass-kicking. Her romantic plotline was also unbelievable at times—or, at the very least, way less interesting than her plethora of lovingly-drawn female friendships.
A novel that would have luxuriated in trauma and romance would have been a different novel altogether, and not necessarily a good one; and, at the end of the day, I’d rather read a story that failed to depict an interesting romance than one that failed to depict believable friendship. That said, the strength of the women in Howard’s novels combined with the generosity and humor in their interactions makes me wish she’d forego the male love interests altogether, and include a queer main romance instead. An impossible wish, perhaps, but one that I can’t shake. This novel is so close to being something I could fall in love with. As it is, I was happy to fall in like with it, and to read it as a lovely appetizer to the fall season.
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.